- Associated Press - Monday, January 11, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - A foster family’s structure should be an important factor when Kansas places abused and neglected children in temporary homes, a legislative panel said Monday in a recommendation that one lawmaker said would encourage discrimination against gays and lesbians.

A House-Senate committee studying foster care issues wrapped up its work just minutes before lawmakers opened their annual session.

The Republican-dominated Legislature also faces closing a projected $190 million deficit in the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton publicly urged the state to expand its Medicaid program to provide health coverage for thousands of additional families. GOP leaders quickly dismissed her comments.

Here are significant developments on the session’s opening day.



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FOSTER CARE

The foster care study approved a recommendation that the Department for Children and Families use “evidence-based” factors in placing foster children.

Conservative Republicans who oppose same-sex marriage backed the study committee’s recommendation.

“The underlying motive of that was to give DCF a green light to continue to discriminate against same-sex couples,” said Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka.

Gays and lesbians in Kansas can serve as foster parents and adopt children. But multiple same-sex couples have alleged that the agency discriminates against gays and lesbians who seek to adopt the foster children in their care.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican, said the goal is to tie placement decisions to academic studies showing what family structures benefit children the most.

“It would help us make decisions that would be in the best interests of the child,” she said.

Opponents of gay marriage argue that some academic studies show that a parent of each gender is best for children but supporters of gay marriage say far more studies show there’s no advantage.

DCF officials also have said they’re focused on each child’s best interest, though Secretary Phyllis Gilmore told The Associated Press in December, “I still say that the preferred (situation) is every child to have a mom and a dad, if possible, but it’s not always possible.”

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MEDICAID EXPANSION

Hillary Clinton issued her statement on the debate over expanding Medicaid in Kansas hours before lawmakers opened the session. She said the move also would help small, rural hospitals.

“Health care for Kansas families should be a right for all, not a privilege for the few,” her statement said.

The federal health overhaul championed by Democratic President Barack Obama encourages states to expand their Medicaid programs and promises the federal government will pay almost all of the cost.

Top Kansas Republicans have been skeptical that the federal government will keep its funding promises. GOP leaders issued multiple statements Monday calling the federal health care law a disaster.

Told of Clinton’s statement, Kansas House Speaker and Stilwell Republican Ray Merrick dismissed it.

He responded, “Hillary who?”

Rural hospitals’ financial problems have kept interest in expanding Medicaid alive, despite strong GOP opposition.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said he still wants to pursue a “conservative” alternative that could help people buy private health insurance while requiring them to be working or seeking work.

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BUDGET SHORTFALL

The state’s projected deficit is the gap between anticipated revenues and spending already approved under the $15.8 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Republican legislators last year closed a bigger shortfall by raising sales and cigarette taxes. GOP Gov. Sam Brownback has ruled out further tax increases this year.

GOP leaders hope Republicans can avoid the infighting that made last year’s session the longest ever at 114 days. Sessions are typically scheduled for 90 days, but top Republicans hope this year’s will be 80 or even fewer days.

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: https://www.kslegislature.org

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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